The first round of A for Arizona Expansion & Innovation Fund grant recipients recognize innovative and promising practices that support student populations whose learning has been significantly disrupted during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Below is summary background as well as excerpts from the applications that help explain why these schools were awarded an innovation grant. While each applicant brought unique approaches, the finalists also brought the ability to improve outcomes for under-served communities, evidence of these approaches to scale to include more students, and research to inform their decisions. 

Category 1: Exceptional Students of the Future

  • Arizona Autism Charter – Central Phoenix, Maricopa County
  • Great Hearts Academies (primary campuses only) – Multi, Maricopa County

Category 2: STEM, Arts, and Career Education

  • Academy of Building Industries High – Fort Mohave, Mohave County
  • Girls Innovation Academy, Alhambra Elementary School District – Glendale, Maricopa County
  • Academies of Math & Science Desert Sky – Maryvale, Maricopa County
  • Eva Marshall Magnet School, Flagstaff Unified School District – Flagstaff, Coconino County
  • IntelliSchool (Chandler; Metro Center; & Paradise Valley campuses) – Chandler, Central Phoenix, and Paradise Valley, Maricopa County
  • Palo Verde Elementary School, Casa Grande Elementary District – Casa Grande, Pinal County
  • Tanque Verde High School, Tanque Verde Unified School District – Tucson, Pima County

Category 3: Community Learning  

  • Phoenix International Academy – South Phoenix, Maricopa County
  • Self-Development Academy Phoenix – Central Phoenix, Maricopa County
  • Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning/Prenda/Black Mothers Forum Microschool Partnership – South Phoenix, Maricopa County
  • Western School of Science & Technology and surrounding Maryvale public schools – Maryvale, Maricopa County

Category 4: Live Remote Instruction – Learning Community Cohort

  • ASU Preparatory Academy (Casa Grande High School, Downtown Phoenix Primary, Middle, and High Schools, and South Phoenix Primary and Middle Schools) – Downtown Phoenix and South Phoenix, Maricopa County + Casa Grande, Pinal County
  • Madison Highland Prep – Central Phoenix, Maricopa County
  • Highland Prep – Surprise, Maricopa County
  • Reyes Maria Ruiz Leadership Academy, Espiritu Schools – South Phoenix, Maricopa County
  • Somerset Skyway Academy, Academica – Goodyear, Maricopa County

We believe these schools and systems can serve as bright spots of possibility for others interested in applying for future Expansion & Innovation Fund grants. New applicants and applicants not awarded in the first round are all eligible to apply for additional grant awards in Round 2, which will begin in early August. 


Potential to reach roughly 1,100 students

Though several of our grantees serve a substantial number of students with special needs, the two schools in this cohort focused on delivering high-quality Exceptional Student Services specifically in their proposals. Our first awardee is focused full time on the needs of Exceptional Students. Together, Arizona Autism Charter and Great Hearts Academies’ primary campuses are bringing to bear a combination of best practices, caregiver support, and technology solutions to ensure these students do not fall through the cracks. Nationally, these students are thought to have experienced the deepest learning losses from last spring’s school closures. These two grantees refuse to let that happen on their watch. Very importantly, these systems are collaborating to provide and share the research, practices, and outcomes for others seeking new and effective practices for Exceptional Students.

Arizona Autism Charter (AZACS)

AZACS has combined lessons learned since March with their relentless focus on outcomes for their exceptional students to develop a best-in-class back-to-school experience uniquely designed for students on the autism spectrum and their caregivers. Creating a package of in-person, tele-lesson, and tele-therapy options for families requires cutting edge technology and finding or creating best practices to support and train the adult caregivers at home. While nationally virtual support of special needs students has not yet been broadly available or delivered, AZACS has been developing best practices in real time to impact more students and families and supporting what they learn through high quality research to evolve and scale these unique practices to others.

“As our state’s first and only autism-focused charter school, Arizona Autism Charter Schools (AZACS) primarily serves students on the autism spectrum and students with related developmental conditions in grades K-12. AZACS is a Title 1 school, with approximately 75% of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch. 

AZACS is well aware of the special supports needed to help special needs students engage in virtual learning in a meaningful way. Virtual learning for this population includes a very close and deliberate partnership with the parents, home health providers, and other caregivers in the home. Without this team approach, there is likely not enough support and facilitation in the home. AZACS has also offered visiting teachers and therapists to either provide training for the child’s home team or provide home-based instruction or assessments themselves. AZACS plans to expand these home-based services in the 2020-21 school year.” – AZACS application

Great Hearts Academies, Primary Campuses only

Great Hearts is one of Arizona’s first and highest performing charter school networks. Now, as schools all over the country continue to stumble in efforts to serve special needs students and honor their IEPs and 504 Plans during school closure and remote learning, Great Hearts is investing in and designing responses that recognize the unique needs of exceptional students and their caregivers, ensuring educators deliver the engaging content they deserve and the therapies they require. The Innovation Fund investments will help identify and implement these important virtual strategies with their highest need primary schools and showcase best practices for other schools to refine and scale.

Great Hearts Academies is a K-12 Charter Management Organization that operates 21 public schools in Arizona which serve over 14,000 students and employ over 1,200 teachers. We pursue a simple proposition: making a classical, liberal arts education available to all children. 

Students with disabilities need additional special education instruction and therapy in order to grow and flourish. All students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) will have access to a dedicated device (laptop) to ensure that they do not have to compete with their family members to access teletherapy and synchronous instruction. Team members are developing individualized learning boxes to send home with assistive technology devices and other special materials to assist students with engaging the online curriculum. School staff roles will be reorganized to make more faculty available to provide support for students who need extra attention.” – Great Heart Academies application


Potential to reach roughly 8,800 students

While student engagement in their own classroom is an ongoing challenge all educators face, school closures and remote learning have made this the primary challenge for even our best schools. However, there is a strategy that some of Arizona’s most consistent leaders and boldest innovators have found works – STEM, the Arts, and Career Education. Sustaining and redesigning magnet, music, and career-focused education during the pandemic is a critical strategy to help students avoid learning loss, protect student engagement, and keep students on-track for post-COVID-19 life. Six schools were awarded grants for their work in this space.

Academies of Math & Science Desert Sky, Academies of Math & Science Network

AMS has already revolutionized math and science instruction in Arizona and brought high quality STEM education to underserved students. With their remote learning plan, they are capitalizing on student interest in tech and coding to keep student motivation high and skill development on-track. This effort enhances their signature model to make STEM even more accessible and approachable for all students beginning first at their Desert Sky campus. Their efforts to redesign access to tech education make them a standout for STEM engagement even when facing atypical circumstances. 

“AMS Desert Sky is located in the Maryvale community of Phoenix. 91 percent of our student population is Hispanic, 5 percent are African American, and 2 percent are white. 99 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and over 95 percent are English Language Learners. 

In light of COVID-19, we want to facilitate continued hands-on activities by sending micro:bit kits to all of our students to begin the year working with technology and coding exercises. The technology and science teachers are in the process of developing online curriculum, projects and associated rubrics to continue the growth in STEM and physical computing. Students would normally work in groups of 2-5. We are restructuring to enable students the ability to complete the work individually as well as in virtual groups. These kits will be followed by online instructional modules developed by the technology and science teachers and include structured Zoom office hours designed to illustrate key building and coding methodologies in a hands-on format. In these sessions, students will be allowed to collaborate in breakout rooms or elicit help from the teacher. This methodology will work in either a hybrid model or in an online setting.” – AMS Desert Sky application

Academy of Building Industries High School

AOBI has developed a hands-on job training model that is relevant to today’s workforce needs and in tune with the priorities of their students. This focused approach is why the rural alternative high school has achieved success to date and seeks to sustain those outcomes. Given the COVID-generated changes to schooling, AOBI is prioritizing the job training portions of their curriculum for in-person supports and delivering the academic requirements remotely. This allows the school to organize into small enough groups to safely sustain the part of the program that keeps their students enrolled and motivated for post-secondary, and post-pandemic, readiness. 

“AOBI is a vocational trade charter high school that serves students from a large rural area. Many students are behind in credits, adjudicated youth, foster kids, and students needing hands on training who are not university bound. We are approximately 85% economically disadvantaged families and serve a larger percentage of Special education students than a typical high school- approximately 22%. 

Students have electives like blacksmithing, welding, metal fab, CADD, Drone Pilot, Auto shop/drag racing, Carpentry/furniture, Basic Engineering, Greenhouse Growing, Office Skills. They also run their own lunch program as a student run business to learn retail, cooking, and business skills. Students not only graduate with a high school diploma but have the option of graduating with a two-year certificate in the trade they choose.” – AOBI application

Girls Innovation Academy, Alhambra Elementary School District

Through the decades, Alhambra Elementary School District has historically led the way or been early adopters of best practices for under-served students. Rather than see students in the achievement gap as a liability, they seize the opportunity to show their community what a public school system should look like and produce outcomes that often exceed their peers. Alhambra is poised to do that again here by embracing a research and community driven solution in response to students’ requests for more STEM education and the reality of gender inequalities in STEM careers.

“Alhambra Elementary School District is located in the neighborhoods of Phoenix and Glendale, Arizona. We strive to provide a high quality, well-rounded education to approximately 12,000 students PK-8.  The needs of those we impact are great, with a 93% free and reduced lunch rate. We serve a diverse student population consisting of immigrant and refugee families, and students who are facing homelessness. 95% of our students are students of color and 22% are English Language Learners. 

The National Association for Research in Science Teaching finds that female students show stronger performance in science and mathematics programs when they are provided continued learning spaces to work and dialogue with other female peers, named ‘counterspaces’. In an effort to counter marginalization of the Alhambra learners interested in rigorous STEM, Innovation and Engineering education, Girls Innovation Academy (GIA) is proud to announce the creation of our own counterspace for any interested student in grades 5th-8th grade.” – Girls Innovation Academy application

Eva Marshall Magnet School, Flagstaff Unified School District

Eva Marshall Magnet is home to the Academic High-Altitude Suzuki Violin program. This program results in improved behavior and enhanced focus so sustaining the benefit during remote learning is critical. Eva Marshall is releasing their collection of violins for home use and building their own on-demand and synchronous music education instructional model to accommodate these unique times. Funding will help upskill instructors for the online format and expand this free program to more families so that Flagstaff students can confidently continue their high-quality music education through real-time small group virtual instruction. A true model for others to replicate after to ensure the arts continue while students are learning remotely in their school communities.

“Eva Marshall Magnet School, a Title 1 school (49% at/below poverty level), has 513 K-5 students with the following race/ethnicity: Caucasian 41%, Hispanic 35%, American Indian/Alaskan 21%, Other 3%. Our students thrive in our magnet programs, as we offer extra enrichment in the Arts and Sciences. 

Two published research studies have been performed at Marshall to measure the cognitive and academic benefit that comes from our Suzuki Violin program. In each, a statistically significant result of increased functional attention and working memory has been found…Our plan is to give families the option of picking up a violin free of charge so that any interested student would be able to learn and practice their instrument at home. We would train and pay our Suzuki Violin teachers to teach our students through practice videos and real-time small group meetings…This would require…our instructors to shift their work to an on-line format, which will include training & practice to hone their skills.” – Eva Marshall Magnet application

IntelliSchool – Chandler, Metro Center, & Paradise Valley campuses

Prior to COVID-19, IntelliSchool was in the process of enhancing their student engagement strategies and found that STEM and work-based learning motivated their student body and improved academic results. With the onset of school closures and reports of record levels of student disengagement, IntelliSchool doubled down to bring their plan to fruition in remote, hybrid and in-person models that allow students in each of those learning modalities to interact and/or to learn on demand. Like many of the applicants, the redesign has many benefits beyond student safety and holds promise to expand the schools’ impact well after COVID-19 accommodations are necessary.

“IntelliSchool’s three locations serve high school students, aged 14-22. Of our 425 students, 78% fall within poverty level guidelines, 57% are minority students, and 23% are identified as homeless. Many have faced intense bullying, or tumultuous home lives; while others battle depression, low self-esteem, and other social- emotional issues. Fulltime, dedicated counselors at each location and a counselor’s desk sits alongside the teacher desks in the large student work area, where they can collaborate throughout the day. 

SMART boards and STEM equipment will allow ‘zoom from the room’ opportunities, where some students can participate in-person, while others will join in virtually. This enables teacher-to-student, as well as student- to-student screen sharing and remote control access to the SMART board where thirty or more students can engage simultaneously. In-person opportunities will be scheduled by appointment to ensure the safety and well-being of our students and staff. Additionally, traveling STEM kits can be checked out for home use, complete with curriculum, directions or QR codes connected to videos guiding students as they explore, problem solve, and critically think.” – IntelliSchool application

Palo Verde Elementary School, Casa Grande Elementary District

Palo Verde Elementary School serves an extremely diverse population at a very high level. We know that a component of closing the achievement gap is having expectations that your students can and will do so. This belief system is evident in the strategies PVES brings to their students every day. Their most recent work in this space is the adoption and implementation of the Leader in Me program. They are leveraging this work with their “re-entry” plans to mitigate learning loss and impacts of trauma as students transition to and from COVID-19 related redesign. PVES is building on their whole child model to incorporate stronger career awareness with the help of local employers and businesses as part of their student leadership goal setting work as well as to give students meaningful context to their learning to better improve engagement.

“Palo Verde has a student population of 368 students. Population is as follows: Hispanic or Latino : 67.4% %; White : 9.59%; American Indian or Alaska Native : 8.77% ; Black or African American; 7.4% ; Other : 5.7%; and Asian, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander ; 1.1%. 99.95% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Last year our mobility rate was 38%. 

Our proposal, titled My Possibilities are Unlimited, is supplementary to our academic plans, and focuses more on building our students’ self-efficacy and commitment to education. It is an idea we want to implement, in addition to all of the steps we are taking to ensure that, despite Covid-19 challenges, our students continue to learn and grow.” – PVES application

Tanque Verde High School, Tanque Verde Unified School District

The TVUSD governing board intentionally sought out a proven leader to evolve the dated high school model and return relevance and preparedness to a diverse set of Pima County students. This will be the first University honors college/CTE blended high school in Southern Arizona with a focus on career academies within the high school model. Safety and innovation are at the forefront of all decisions including building design. This total school redesign plan will accelerate Arizona’s education innovation footprint and move boldly towards individualized workforce-aligned education options within a single school.

“In 2020-2021, Tanque Verde is committed to redesigning the high school to better serve students during both the global pandemic and into the future. 

Students will return to campus with an academy structure implemented on campus to serve each student’s curricular, and socio-emotional needs. The academy structure supports student interest, goals, as well as the needs of the college and career workforce in Arizona. The academies will support college preparation and as well as careers in Science/Technology, Construction/Engineering, Agriculture/Environmental Science, Performance/Design as well as a collaboration with the University of Arizona Honors college to implement a honors college within a high school campus.” – Tanque Verde application


Potential to reach roughly 6,600 students

While each of the three models in this cohort share qualities with schools in the other focused categories, they stand out in their efforts to address the whole child through small learning communities, community partnerships, 1-1 relationship building, or all of the above. An individualized approach for every child is key to their success and these educators are ensuring that element of their models is not only not lost during these tumultuous times but enhanced. 

Phoenix International Academy (PIA)

PIA serves a high poverty student body with little access to high quality schools in South Phoenix. Many of the students who arrive at PIA are several grades behind. Educators at PIA know their work is urgent and have aggressive goals. When students are far behind, grade bands no longer make sense. Few schools have figured out how to respond to this teaching and learning challenge. The work PIA is doing is a next generation effort to narrow then close the achievement gap. Their leadership team not only has a deep commitment to the student population served by PIA, they have the track record to deliver on this innovative approach as they serve more students this school year. The requirements of distance learning led them to restructure their already highly personalized model to better ensure every student has one clear relationship for checking in, being safe, and not falling through the cracks.

Students at Phoenix International Academy directly reflect the diversity of the community we serve in South Phoenix. The majority of our students are either Black (20%) or Latino (71%), with a small percentage of White (8%) and Native American (1%) students. About 94% qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program. 

Over the past year and a half, our efforts have focused on making direct contact with families and directly involving students in decision making and feedback. PIA is staying true to our core innovations of personalized learning and project-based learning while adapting to a constantly changing environment where any number of our students may be learning at a distance. At PIA, student success is considered to be a minimum of 1.5 grade levels per year and an average rating of 4/5 in our social emotional survey and rubric.– PIA application

Self-Development Academy Phoenix 

SDA-Phoenix is proposing a thoughtful way to create safe and effective in-person learning environments for the students who need it the most. By leveraging existing partnerships with high quality early learning and community organizations families already utilize, SDA-Phoenix is bridging the gap created when remote learning is necessary but learning from home is challenging, impossible or unsafe. Having established these small learning communities, upon evaluation of impact, they can keep the partnership in place after COVID-19 accommodations are no longer necessary to expand students learning day and provide the additional remediation and learning time students in the achievement gap severely need to get on track. These types of school partnership relationships are not only key to managing current needs but are an innovative way to address other teaching-and-learning challenges facing communities on a regular basis.

“SDA-Phoenix serves about 95% of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, 92% of the students are minority students, and 40% are English Language Learners. The target population of the proposed grant includes the cross section of low poverty, low AZ Merit scores, and children without adequate supervision. Near the SDA- Phoenix campus, the household income is just $16,000. 

The program is designed to meet the needs of our community at different phases of education this year. During the initial phase, the program will work with existing childcare centers to provide 40 students a safe place and instructional support during distant learning. This will aid parents who are unable to supervise their children during regular school hours due to their need to provide for their families. The next phase will provide 290 students instructional support before and after school when they resume in-person instruction. This program is needed due to the learning gaps in the low-income community especially following the school closure last year.” – SDA-Phoenix application

Sequoia Choice Arizona Distance Learning/Prenda/Black Mothers Forum Microschool Partnership

This application was the result of parent-driven innovations in education and will support the creation of 3 microschool classrooms in South Phoenix. The desire for safe, supportve, in-person learning with a community of other students and families is a growing need. Microschool learning communities make these goals achievable for small groups of families that desire to sustain a relationship with a school but not compromise on their academic dreams for their children. That this comes at a time when parents all over Arizona, and indeed nationally, seek the safe intersection of community and in-person learning, while addressing the gaps in options for students of color, made supporting this innovation now that much more critical.  

“We (the Black Mothers Forum) have held several meetings over the past 1-2 years with parents of Black children regarding the need to provide an alternative school setting that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for our children. We strongly believe once a child feels safe to learn they will fully engage in the pursuit of their academic success. 

We believe the micro school model will help address the achievement gap and greatly reduce the disproportionate disciplinary practices our Black children face in the traditional school model.” – Partnership application

Western School of Science & Technology & surrounding Maryvale public schools

WSST is literally and figuratively extending their impact beyond the walls of the school by providing access to a critical utility for all learners in and surrounding their campus community as well as their alumni. With full-time, in-person instruction further delayed, virtual innovation must continue and access to WiFi is critical. WSST will provide access to a signal 24-7 by extending WiFi outside the walls of the school and around the immediate perimeter of the property in a community without consistent access to a strong signal. This allows community access at a location where the community can safely gather and will accelerate academic gains in this growing Golden Corridor of Excellence. This includes students who must learn during non-traditional hours because they are in charge of younger siblings who are at home due to school closures, and will provide WSST students with access to tutors at the school property in the afternoons and evenings for in-person support. 

“The Maryvale community is a 37 square mile section of Phoenix. 96% of WSST students identify as Hispanic, and a number of WSST students are first generation high school graduates. WSST is at a 95% free and reduced lunch rate. 

WSST is on a mission to reimagine school, and these necessary and creative solutions will expand learning outside of our four walls and will allow students the opportunity to use the internet on their terms. WSST believes that expanding access to WiFi throughout the school property, including the parking lot, (and fields) is an innovative solution that will allow our students who need it to connect to the internet on-demand and to have access to the property for needed in -person tutoring.” – WSST application


Potential to reach roughly 3,500 students

A cohort of five school systems have all proposed a common approach and solution to sustaining their very high-quality models during remote and hybrid instruction. The importance of live student-teacher and student-student interaction has put schools on the hunt for strategies and tools to preserve that component of distance learning. New technology can make “synchronous” learning possible to heighten student engagement and preserve positive outcomes. Though many distance learning experiences are driven by pandemic accommodations, remote and digital instruction are integrated into other experiences that enhance access and improve individualized learning. Knowing which tools and strategies can make these experiences high quality is critically important. The school systems in this cohort have agreed to be collaboratively a part of a research project with Arizona State University to document and understand the value of these technologies, how they can be maximized and what gaps they may or may not fill for students. 

ASU Preparatory Academy: Six of ASU Prep’s highly performing campuses serve priority populations, including those in communities hardest hit by COVID-19. Their work here is just another example of their tenacity and focus on finding solutions that confront change and improve outcomes. 

Madison Highland Prep and Highland Prep Surprise: Madison Highland Prep has a near perfect graduation rate and track record for sending graduates on to college with its sister campus in Surprise following its footsteps with its first senior class this fall. Circumstances are not an excuse. For Highland Prep, they are a launch pad to opportunity for every student to realize their unique potential.

Reyes Maria Ruiz Leadership Academy: One of the first charter schools to grow out of a community commitment in South Phoenix to leadership through service and community development, RMR’s instructional model is built for meeting students where they are and engaging all members of the family. As one of the longstanding highly performing schools in South Phoenix, RMR aims to continue to lead the way on high-quality learning and engaging teaching practices.

Somerset Skyway Academy: Somerset’s campus in Goodyear reflects that community’s diversity and provides them with a high quality model that achieves results for all kids. Their Classrooms of the Future are fully optimized classrooms where teachers can teach the same lesson and interact with students inside the classroom and those learning remotely in-real time. This model has been successfully implemented across the country throughout the Academica network and will provides every student at Somerset Skyway with a complete engaging school day experience.